The duck-infused flavour of victory

Culture Food | Drink

For the second time in as many years, Josh Boudreau has claimed the title of Best Bartender of the Pacific Northwest. The 25-year-old Veneto barkeep won this year’s Art of the Cocktail competition with a concoction he coined the John Coffey — a tribute to the devious days of Prohibition.

“When it came together, it was the colour of espresso,” Boudreau says of his blend. “They used tricks like that during the ‘20s, mixing alcohol with a bit of coffee so it didn’t look like they were drinking.”

But Boudreau’s cocktail had nothing to do with coffee. The theme of this year’s competition was The Whole Beast, encouraging contestants to get creative with meat ingredients. Veneto offers a duck confit dish — duck leg slow-roasted in its own fat for hours until it falls from the bone — that, Boudreau says, is “the most tender and delicious meat on the planet.”

“I can’t get enough of it,” he says, “so I knew I wanted to use duck.” Through a process known as fatwashing — a term Boudreau admits isn’t all that appetizing — he first mixed hot duck fat together with tequila, then froze it. The fat travelled to the top of the mixture where it could be removed, leaving nothing but a duck-infused tequila behind.

From there, Boudreau “started messing around with ingredients.” Experimentation is a big part of his job. He has a clientele base that enjoys trying new things and trusts Boudreau’s inventiveness. “[It] allows me to . . . come up with new recipes every single day and always stay in shape when it comes to my palate.” Boudreau has been playing around with vinegar in his drinks lately. He says tequila and balsamic blend well. Balsamic vinegar, along with apricot liqueur,  Averna bitters (from Italy), and bianco vermouth all joined the duck-flavoured tequila in the winning drink.

Contestants were aware of the competition’s theme well in advance. “Customers were coming in over the last few weeks and allowing me to experiment on them,” says Boudreau.

The challenge itself consisted of three parts — a written test, a blind tasting and original cocktail mixing. Each part carries the same weight in terms of marking. After Boudreau aced the tasting, he knew he was in good shape. In last year’s competition, Boudreau did so well on the first two components of the contest that he guaranteed himself at least second place before he even attempted the cocktail. “It’s an all-‘round competition,” he says. “Making drinks is only about 10 per cent of our job. Knowledge is really important.”

Since this second victory, Boudreau has been “overwhelmed” by the attention he’s received. “Customers are coming because they’ve heard we won the competition and they want to have drinks from me,” he says. “From when I started out bartending [four years ago] to be getting recognition like this, after paying my dues — it’s just so flattering.”

But while Boudreau’s creation has earned him the accolades, he’s quick to acknowledge his support network, particularly co-workers Simon Ogden, Katie McDonald and Ken Gifford. “None of this would be possible without them. We help each other all the time.”

Boudreau is proud to be working at an establishment that focuses on what he calls “classically inspired contemporary bartending.” At Veneto, the ingredients are fresh and locally sourced; care for detail is everything.

“I just always want to be pushing the boundaries and always learning,” he says. “I never want to stop experimenting. It’s important to me to keep making high-quality cocktails.”